Mailbag: Summer sessions, Shamrock Series, point-spreads and more

7 Comments

Another spirited mailbag. I especially enjoy seeing your answers in the comments, hopefully these live up to your own.

Let us begin.

mediocrebob: With the new rules regarding summer workouts, how involved are the coaches right now and do these workouts give the incoming freshman a better opportunity to get a feel for the next level? Do these workouts benefit offensive skill players more than say a Nyles Morgan?

The tweak in rules is a pretty big deal, and probably hasn’t been talked about enough. While Kelly has only discussed what the offensive coaches are doing to take advantage of the ability to work on the playbook and football specific skills (no using actual footballs), Kelly said the team is handling the workouts like the NFL’s OTAs (Organized Team Activities), and offensively, the team is reinstalling the offense during the summer, getting them into fall camp ahead of schedule.

Of course, a reinstall is probably more crucial on defense, as Brian VanGorder used the 15 spring practices to initially install the new system. For Nyles Morgan, who wasn’t a part of spring football, this is a crucial time for his development. And the opportunity to work with his defensive coaches, not just Paul Longo and his staff, is key.

Looking for a good tidbit on Morgan understanding his opportunity? He was on campus and spotted during the Irish Invasion, looking physically impressive for an incoming freshman.

 

johngaltisspeaking: Will we see a QB carousel with Zaire and Golson this season or are we doing to see one QB take the reins? Also while Golson’s play has been the best in BK tenure it seems that the up speed Oregon style offense was never run. Is BK trying to run more of a Oregon style offense or Auburn Offense ? I would love to know exactly what type offense he is going to install this year.

Carousel might not be the right term, but I fully expect Zaire to see the field early for the Irish, getting him his first taste of college football on Notre Dame’s terms, not in an emergency situation.

As for the Irish offense with Golson, I spent some time writing about it here. But I don’t think you’re going to see Oregon’s offense or Gus Malzahn’s offense. But you will see Brian Kelly’s spread offense, the first time they’ve been able to run it to his liking since he’s been in South Bend.

 

notredameirish1980: Your prediction: After the Barnett flip, will ND pass on a QB this year given that they probably return 3 scholarship QB’s next season, two with multiple years of eligibility, and concentrate on getting the RKG for 2016? 

While Barnett’s decommitment hurt, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as others are making it out to be. While some worry that 2014 might be Golson’s final season in South Bend, I have a hard time understanding the logic behind that decision. And with two other quarterbacks with four full seasons of eligibility, it’s far from a NEED position.

That being said, the staff has made additional offers, though Travis Waller’s looking more and more destined for Oregon and not Notre Dame after it looked like he was trending Irish.

But if you’re looking for a 2015 quarterback that ND is targeting? Start looking at some of the committed prospects. Everett Golson wasn’t on anybody’s radar when he was a long-time North Carolina commit. And Gunner Kiel was a pipedream between his commitments to Indiana and LSU.

Weird things will happen. Probably the best thing to happen to the Irish was Barnett flaking out in June, not January.

 

rocket1988: Do you see the addition of home and homes with SEC teams being the death of Shamrock Series games? And top three cities you’d like to see a one off game in?

No way. I think the Shamrock Series is here to stay and will be a part of Notre Dame’s scheduling plans for a long time. Upcoming games in Indy, Fenway Park, and back to the Alamodome have Notre Dame locked in through 2016.

The home-and-home with Georgia was more about getting the Irish into the state and SEC, finding a top-shelf SEC program that also wasn’t morally or academically bankrupt.

But since you asked, here are my top three cities for a Shamrock Series game?

1) San Diego: Getting a game in Petco Park and into the southern-most part of Southern California would be a ton of fun. And the venue can’t be beat.

2) “South Florida:” (Yes, I know that’s not a city…) Getting ND into an interesting game in the talent-rich South Florida area should be on the agenda… especially to erase the last appearance in the Miami area. Staying on the baseball theme, maybe playing in the Marlins new stadium?

3) Vancouver: This might be outside of the box, but how about a game in Vancouver’s BC Place? The stadium fits 54,000 for football, takes Notre Dame into the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and could be an awesome game against someone like Washington. (Plus we could eat lots of salmon.)

 

simmel65: I have always loved how Notre Dame plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation, but are we getting to the point where that might be counterproductive? Look at Alabama’s schedule. They always have a bye or a patsy before a big game. Our schedule is so dependent on everyone else’s, that it seems like we are going to end up stacking a ton of solid teams up in a row which just may end up keeping us out of the playoffs. Thoughts?

Welcome to life as college football’s lone (major) independent. Notre Dame needs to play a tougher schedule to get into the final four spots without a conference title to win. But expect to see some of those cupcakes erased from schedules as the Big Ten goes to nine conference games and schools start to miss out on an opportunity to get into the playoff based on strength of schedule.

Do some upcoming Notre Dame schedules look too tough? Sure. But the 2012 schedule looked to be the toughest on paper in the country and Notre Dame walked through that just fine.

 

ndrocks2: Surprised Koyack is getting preseason mentions as one of best TE’s? Is it based on how we use the position or is he the real deal just buried on depth chart in the past?

Koyack should be on the Mackey Award watch list, if only because every Notre Dame starting tight end over the last decade has at least been a semifinalist for the award. Sure, it’s mostly based on the reputation of Irish tight ends putting up big seasons, but also because Koyack is a 6-foot-5, 261-pound monster who is going to be counted on to play a major role in the Irish offense.

I think Koyack is poised for a big season. He’s got to clean up some of the drops and mental mistakes he’s made, but he’s going to be one of the key pieces to Notre Dame’s offense.

 

onward2victory: Keith, if you were a betting man, which of the Golden Nugget ND spreads do you like most? Is FSU really 24 points better than us?!?

At this point in the year, who knows what’s going to happen. But a look at Florida State versus the competition last year, and you get an idea as to why the point spread is so inflated.

As for the early lines — and no, I’m no longer a betting man (Thanks Bush & Leinart) — no line was released for the Rice game, but I’d expect the Irish to be around a 10-point favorite against a sneaky Owls team that won 10 games last year.

But other than that, Notre Dame is favored in every game except Stanford (ND’s a +6 home dog), The Seminoles (+24), at Arizona State (+4.5) and visiting USC, getting a surprising 10 points.

As a betting man, I’d feel pretty good about hitting the Arizona State and USC games. Taylor Kelly should lead a pretty prolific offense, but the Sun Devils are a mess on defense. As for USC, Notre Dame’s won three of four against the Trojans and I’m not seeing how giving 10 points makes a bunch of sense for Steve Sarkisian’s first Trojan squad.

 

iamgolden4life: Keith, I wondering if we were to land Hilliard July 2 if you will do an article on who the most likely to follow him to South Bend. I also know of course we may miss on him, but he looks very happy and comfortable in the pics of him I’ve seen while visiting ND.

Hilliard will announce his college choice on July 2, as will Jashon Cornell. It sounds like it’ll be a package deal, which answers your question. Hilliard and Cornell have struck an unlikely friendship, two elite defensive prospects that want to play football together in college.

Most feel like this is Ohio State’s recruitment to lose. But I still feel like Notre Dame is in a good place to win these two, a gigantic swing in recruiting. (Wide receiver Myles Boykin will announce on the 2nd as well, making my travel day home to Minnesota a fairly hectic one.)

As for Hilliard, I’m just ready for his recruitment to end. Between he and Cornell trolling multiple fanbases on Twitter, it’s hard to get angry at a kid who is just trying his best to enjoy a process grown-up football fans ruined, but Notre Dame’s staff have done everything you could ask from them.

I pointed it out last week, but Hilliard’s comments on Notre Dame — and the comfort he feels with the players and what the school does academically for him — and the perfect comments you want to hear from an Irish recruit. If Notre Dame doesn’t land him? He just didn’t want it.

Either way, wish the kid well and understand why Brian Kelly says Notre Dame’s not for everyone and they often have to shop from a different aisle.

 

onward2victory: In the spirit of pure speculation, which opposing QB that ND will face would start over Golson if that QB was Irish?

Good question. Let’s just put Jameis Winston here for now, as the returning Heisman Trophy winner is the perfect quarterback for Brian Kelly’s offense. Other than that, I think the only other QB on this list would be Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, and that’d be a heckuva competition between the two.

 

ndtod: Not football related, but WTH. Played the Warren course recently and rumor is a big tournament coming there in 2019 or 2020. Prior to that, school considering building villas or cottages on the course. True? What say you?

I have not heard this rumor, but I’m assuming something like the US Amateur or the Women’s Am? And if so — AWESOME.

I highly doubt many have played the Warren Course more than me, as I spent about five days a week wandering those fairways (let’s be honest, a lot of rough, too) as a student in the course’s opening years. It’s a wonderful track that’s only getting better with age, and getting one of the early Coore-Crenshaw designs was a pretty impressive move by Notre Dame brass.

I’d be shocked if there was ever a plan to build condos or villas on the course. I don’t know where they would fit and the property isn’t outfitted for roads or a housing development like some of the other golf course developments from the 1980s and 90s.

But thanks for the update on the course. And the reminder to bring my sticks next time I’m in South Bend.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

rivals.com
1 Comment

With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

Getty Images
1 Comment

For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

Getty Images
10 Comments

A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

Associated Press
6 Comments

Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”